One of the more unfair charges against Jeremy Corbyn was that he disrespected the Queen because he wouldn’t sing the national anthem. He is presumably a republican in theory, but doesn’t seem to mind the monarchy in practice. He is heir to the Marxist tradition in the labour movement, epitomised by John Wheatley’s comment that he “saw no point in substituting a bourgeois president for a bourgeois king”.
Wheatley’s view was quoted by Clement Attlee in an essay he wrote in 1959. Attlee had ceased to be prime minister, having lost the 1951 election, and Elizabeth had become Queen. Attlee modestly declared that he had “taken part in bringing about a number of changes in British society”, but “there is one feature of it which I have never felt any urge to abolish, and that is the monarchy”.
He was a proud monarchist, with a strong pragmatic argument for his view. “A president, however popular, is bound to have been chosen as representative of some political trend, and as such is open to attack from those of a different view,” he wrote. “A monarch is a kind of referee, although the occasions when he or she has to blow the whistle are nowadays very few.”
In fact, his traditionalism went deeper than that, as he showed when he accepted a hereditary earldom when he retired three years later. No other Labour leader was quite so royalist, although Tony Blair tried. Blair said he was “from the Disraeli school”, as he copied Disraeli’s flattery of Victoria by describing Elizabeth as “the best of British”. But Blair could never quite conceal his anti-establishment cast of mind, and the royal family could never quite forgive him for having saved it from the popular backlash after the death of Diana.
Keir Starmer’s tribute to the Queen in the Commons on Friday was just as striking for its traditionalism. He quoted Philip Larkin’s lines on the silver jubilee: “In times when nothing stood / But worsened, or grew strange, / There was one constant good: / She did not change.” That is a stark statement of explicit conservatism – not only that, but a statement by an avowed Conservative.
Never mind that Larkin was writing of a time when, under a Labour government, the country seemed to him to be going to the dogs, and that he regarded the Queen as one of the few fortifications against anarchy. Starmer may have wanted to suggest that there are echoes of the Seventies economic crisis today, and that the tables have turned between the parties.
In any case, he went on to use the Queen’s legacy to make his own statement of deep conservatism: “The country she came to symbolise is bigger than any one individual or any one institution. It is the sum total of all our history and all our endeavours, and it will endure.”
It is a sentiment that fits with Starmer’s patriotic theme, set out consistently since he took over from Corbyn. Corbyn was personally polite about the Queen, and his tribute to her was touchingly genuine. “I enjoyed discussing our families, gardens and jam-making with her,” he said. “May she rest in peace.”
One of his best moments in the 2017 election campaign was when Jeremy Paxman pointed out that there was nothing in Labour’s manifesto about getting rid of the monarchy. “Look, there’s nothing in there as we’re not going to do it,” Corbyn said. When he was pressed, he said: “It’s certainly not on my agenda and, do you know what, I had a very nice chat with the Queen.”
But Corbyn’s politics had become, by the time of the 2019 election, a problem with voters who regard themselves as patriotic, and particularly with the kind of working-class voters with whom Attlee instinctively associated. Those voters could no longer be deflected by chats about jam from Corbyn’s hostility to the establishment, including its conventional views on national security.
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Hence the flags in Starmer’s videos and his photo opportunities with soldiers. Some of Starmer’s poses have been crude, but this week allowed him to seal his reputation as a monarchist in the Attlee tradition. He is fortunate in his new opponent, too. Whereas before this week, the Conservatives might have been tempted to attack him for that video in which he slyly boasts about being made a Queen’s Counsel, “which is odd since I often used to propose the abolition of the monarchy”, they can’t now.
Not because Starmer is now a KC, a King’s Counsel, but because Liz Truss, too, was an abolitionist in her youth. That balances the two main parties in a way that Attlee would have appreciated. He felt that there should be no difference between the parties on the rules of the game. He was right – if the monarchy evolves, that should happen without being driven by party politics. By returning Labour to its monarchist tradition, Starmer has ensured that politics can be fought on a level playing field.